Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.02.14 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.02.14

Uri Yiftach-Firanko (ed.), The Letter: Law, State, Society and the Epistolary Format in the Ancient World. Proceedings of a colloquium held at the American Academy in Rome 28-30.9.2008. Legal documents in ancient societies (LDAS), 1; Philippika, 55.   Wiesbaden:  Harrassowitz Verlag, 2013.  Pp. 310.  ISBN 9783447067645.  €56.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Benjamin W. Hicks, University of Alabama (

Table of Contents

In an era when the ways in which we communicate are rapidly expanding, an examination of one of humanity’s oldest methods for disseminating information – the letter – is timely. The title of this volume gives some sense of the breadth and variety of its thirteen papers, which the foreword and introduction do an excellent job of contextualizing as part of the larger collection. The project began as a colloquium at the American Academy in Rome in 2008, which illustrated “how letters were applied for similar purposes in different civilizations, sometimes millennia apart” (p. 14). As part of the Legal Documents in Ancient Society series, its focus is naturally on letters as administrative and legal instruments, rather than sources of information about the personal or social milieu of individuals in the ancient world.1 The collected papers also have an explicit focus on connections between different temporal, legal, and social contexts. There is without question much of interest to scholars of Greece, Rome, and the Near East. The constraints of a review make it impossible to give complete attention to all of the papers presented, though a brief overview of the collection’s three major sections will help situate the different areas of scholarship represented.

The first triad of papers introduces the earliest routine use of letters in the ancient Near East. Sophie Démare-Lafont examines the nature of the letter as a legal tool, calling administrative correspondence “un genre a priori austère et rébarbatif” (p. 30). She offers an engaging account of the careers of three royal officials through written correspondence from the Neo- Sumerian era (21st century BC), the Amorite state of Mari in the late 19th and early 18th centuries BC, and the Assyrian Empire under Ashurbanipal. Dominique Charpin then turns to the issue of the letter as a judicial instrument during the first half of the second millennium BC and examines several categories: letter orders, petitions, letters as evidentiary instruments, and royal correspondence (orders, edicts, and rescripts). He emphasizes the adaptation of the epistolary form to different administrative needs. Eva Cancik-Kirschbaum concludes the section with a focused study of the epistolary format in Middle Assyrian summonses, pointing to their applicability to a very particular legal and social context (that of Tukultī-Ninurta).

The second section looks to the letter’s much later development in Greece. Paola Ceccarelli examines the use of letters by the Attic orators and argues that epistles were regarded both as private and suspect unless part of a symbouleutic context. Indeed, the difficulty of verifying letters’ authenticity and their potential lack of utility in a Hellenic context tie together the contributions in this section. Edward Harris argues that the evidence for business agents in ancient Greece does not imply in any strict sense a legal concept of an agent. He further contends that the limited use of letters in an economic context implies a society where the wealthy could often simply employ a slave as a messenger, rather than send information by letter. Their susceptibility to forgery made them a distrusted tool except in specific circumstances according to his argument. This thesis echoes that of Ceccarelli on the limited utility of letters in a legal context because of the difficulty in verifying the truthfulness of their contents.

A further set of papers within the second section explores letters as instruments of royal power, an area where the letter found a particularly significant role in the Hellenistic period. James Sickinger illuminates the role of letters in the power-play between monarchs and poleis. He concludes that “letters were closely associated with and favored by monarchic governments,” although he acknowledges their occasional use by poleis (p. 125). Ingo Kottsieper provides a marked contrast to the Greek aversion to the letter in his examination of the Aramaic correspondence of the Persian satrap Aršames. In this case, written correspondence provided a crucial focus of administrative organization. Kottsieper distinguishes between documents written with a personal formula of greeting and those that were official orders to individuals who were under the satrap’s authority. The latter ended with a note indicating the person receiving the contents and the scribe’s name. This is particularly interesting from a comparative perspective. The use of the formula to verify and protect the contents certainly calls to mind the use of the subscriptio to authenticate a Roman rescript and demonstrates a parallel adaptation to a similar problem of informational insecurity in imperial management.2

The largest set of papers concludes the collection with a study of Egyptian and Roman cheirographa – contracts written in an individual’s own hand that created a contractual obligation, frequently in the form of monetary debt. These contracts sometimes took the form of a letter between the two contractual parties. Mark Depauw treats Demotic “contracts in epistolary form” (p. 155) in a broader attempt to define the genre. He attempts to distinguish such contracts from informal letters and contracts proper by examining their physical dimensions and the formulae they use. The conclusion of his preliminary studies points to a date of around 120 BC when epistolary contracts become the norm, corresponding to administrative reforms by the Ptolemaic authorities in Egypt. Katelijn Vandorpe echoes this assertion with research into the late Ptolemaic period. She compares the form of the Demotic notary contract with the Greek cheirographon and concludes that they provided an alternative that, in conjunction with other Ptolemaic administrative changes, supplanted older formats such as the Greek six- witness contract.

Andrea Jördens extends this examination into the broader context of the Roman world, where the cheirographon became a standardized form of contract and could involve multiple parties, though she still maintains a focus on Egypt. Her particular argument elucidates a set of bilateral cheirographa dating from the second century AD onwards where both parties are mentioned equally in the address clause, rather than the more standard format in which the creditor addresses the debtor. Sophie Kovarik surveys the use of the cheirographon from the fourth through eighth centuries AD and examines the adoption of the cheirographon as the routine scheme for drafting contracts written by professional scribes (tabelliones), a trend in evidence as early as the first century AD in Oxyrhynchos. Éva Jakab’s contribution continues this broader examination and explores the tabulae stored in the bank of the Suplicii in Puteoli dating from the first century AD. Since the Roman cheirographon by this period had lost its epistolary format, she argues, it stood as a guarantee of debt alongside letters (epistulae), which served as evidentiary documents in a wide array of situations. In contrast, the cheirographon created a formal right of stipulatio to recover debt. Johannes Platschek takes up a similar question, comparing contracts made with the question-answer format of the stipulatio to those which did not contain a trigger for the recovery of debt and required recourse to the praetor and a legal actio.

The variety of topics ensures that virtually any scholar of ancient law can find something of interest. The strength of The Letter is its potential to draw interdisciplinary connections between fields of study. This focus allows for a wider view, though the level of detail does not suffer in any paper. One expects this sort of work is to be recommended to readers on the basis that its individual parts are significant contributions to the fields in which they originate. Yiftach-Firanko and his collaborators, however, have done far more and produced a coherent overview from which crucial questions about letters as legal documents may be posed.

If this reviewer can identify one theme that coordinates all the papers, regardless of context or field, it is the difficulty that all the authors address head-on: defining what a letter as a legal document actually is as compared to other written forms. Certainly all acknowledge that their definitions have an element of subjectivity, as does any attempt at pinning down a concept so tied to an individual culture’s self-definition, but their methodology is exceedingly instructive. Depauw’s application of “strict criteria” (p. 156) to the creation of a database of letters and contracts ranging from 644 BC to the third century AD is a particularly instructive example, but all the authors engage this question with remarkable clarity. Similarly, the caution of Harris and Ceccarelli in reviewing the evidence for letters as legal documents in the Greek context is much appreciated. Again, this rigor is clear throughout the collection and whether a scholar agrees with the conclusions reached by the individual authors or not, they engage forcefully with debates in their respective fields.

This collection asks scholars of antiquity to reexamine the ways letters acted as legal documents, and the skillful arrangement of the individual submissions provides a useful thematic overview that can be strongly recommended.


1.   For a recent approach focusing on the social context of letters, see for example Isabella Sandwell, “Libanius’ Social Networks: Understanding the Social Structure of the Later Roman Empire,” in Greek and Roman Networks in the Mediterranean, ed. Irad Malkin, Christy Constantakopoulou, and Katerina Panagopoulou (London: Routledge, 2009), 129-143.
2.   On the issue of imperial letters as law, see Michael Peachin, Iudex vice Caesaris: Deputy Emperors and the Administration of Justice During the Principate, Heidelberger althistorische Beiträge und epigraphische Studien; Bd. 21 (Stuttgart: F. Steiner, 1996), 14-32. See ibid., 33-79 on the broader issue of legal uncertainty.

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